Archive for March 2022

March 29th   Leave a comment

Occasionally I am lured out of my Crail patch to see a good bird. This morning I could hardly not go and see a pair of garganey that turned up on the pond just a stone’s throw from where I am lecturing this week in St Andrews. They were found by one of my colleague’s bird watching sons on lunch break at Madras yesterday. And they were still there this morning, up ending frantically in the pond and not really trying very hard to keep to the cover of the overhanging vegetation at the back of the pond, which is a more typical garganey, skulking thing to do. There are garganeys all over the UK at the moment. A burst of strong southerlies from the Sahara two weeks ago coincided with these sub-Saharan wintering ducks returning to Europe. The winds brought a lot of red dust which gave us those strange glowing sunsets about the 16th of March, and it pushed the garganeys further into Northern Europe than they usually go. Garganey’s are rare breeders in the UK but some years we have more when this type of weather happens. I still don’t have a garganey on the Crail list and today’s was only my second within 15 km of Crail in the last 20 years. I have had a possible last year flying by Fife Ness in autumn and I dipped on one in Anstruther in the first lockdown when it turned up on a day after I had already been out for my one allowed exercise period. They are great ducks. The males stunning and the females tricky enough that they are easily overlooked, so you need your wits about you if you ever want to see one. Of course, hanging around with a drake in spring makes it easy. But the main thing I like about garganeys is their Africa connection. They occur on oases in and wetlands on the edge of the desert, and so they bring back memories of some my favourite places and times in Africa. I imagine the pair today were refueling after a flight from somewhere like Mali or Senegal, with perhaps their last stop off before Scotland being the Mediterranean.

Male garganey
Female garganey – the white stripe above the eye, spot at the base of the bill and patch under the chin give it away. Garganey are longer looking ducks than teal, as well
The garganeys at the North Haugh pond this morning doing their more usual keeping to the vegetation thing. It was a very dull morning hence the dark photos through my telescope.

It was a duck day. Inspired by the garganey earlier, I stopped off at Carnbee reservoir just in case there was a garganey there too – and one that I could add to the Crail patch list. There has, after all, been a garganey at Cameron Reservoir all last week as well. It was a long shot but there was a flock of 28 greylag geese, a few lesser-black backed gulls amongst the bathing herring gulls, probably 20 little grebes, lots of warring coots, and a few teal along the back to get me going. But best of all, amongst the flock of tufted duck, a male gadwall. A common duck elsewhere but rare on the Crail patch. I have only had them in 4 of the last 20 years, although the last three have been at Carnbee, and in the last five years, so I suspect if I watched the reservoir more intensively I could probably get them every year or so.

Drake gadwall amongst the tufted ducks at Carnbee this afternoon – an understated handsome duck

Posted March 29, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 28th   Leave a comment

I was dodging the haar first thing this morning. The airfield was invisible but then Balcomie was in bright sunshine. There were corn buntings singing in 4 places around the big forage rape field between Pinkerton and the airfield. Last year this field had 7 territories in it by June, but only a couple of birds singing in it in March. The shore at Balcomie was very still – the gentle southeasterly that has brought in the haar has kept the sea nearly dead calm for the last couple of days. I was hoping for some more early migrants but instead the shore is still losing more birds than it is gaining. Just a few sanderlings on the beach and the rock pipits have mostly gone for the summer. A pair of shelducks were optimistically hanging around Stinky Pool before heading off round the coast towards Sauchope. At Fife Ness it was mostly guillemots heading north and a small flock of puffins – many will be heading back to the May Island in the next week or so.

Male eider at Balcomie this morning

Posted March 28, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 27th   1 comment

There are chiffchaffs singing all over Scotland but I only had my first on the Crail patch today. One was singing sporadically in the haar at Kilminning this morning as seven of us planted another 250 trees to finish up last week’s planting. The sun came fully out by midday just as we finished. Spending the morning at Kilminning again with my head down planting trees, and only listening for birds, made me realise just what a poor site Kilminning is for breeding resident birds. Skylark, meadow pipit, yellowhammer, reed bunting, linnet and stonechat in the grassland; blackbird, song thrush, greenfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch, magpie, carrion crow, woodpigeon, coal, great and blue tit, dunnock, pied wagtail and robin in the central tree and car park bit. It gets busier in a month when the summer migrants get back and another five or so migrant species arrive to breed. Even so – about 25 breeding species is not great. But at least the only way is up as we diversify the habitat.

Another Kilminning lesson learnt today: where the main badger sett is. It is in the middle of the brambles and rose bushes in the bank alongside the water treatment shed. I only went over the bank beside the shed to plant the last 4 trees deep in the rose bushes because we had run out of tree guards. The thorns usually keep me away as I hope they will keep the roe deer away. And there was badger city. It is a fact of life you are never very far away from a badger sett anywhere in the East Neuk. You will probably have noticed the three dead badgers that appeared this week on the road between Crail and St Andrews as an indication of the very high density we have, as males start to spring wander and take risks. The Kilminning sett is nicely placed well over 100m away from where I hope to dig the wetland, nicely out of disturbance’s way.

Badger (John Anderson)

Posted March 27, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 20th   Leave a comment

Another day, all day at Kilminning planting trees. Today we planted 840 trees, 46m of double hedging involving 170 plants and 100+ willow wands. In total, that is about 2260 trees/shrubs planted. 152 different people came along to plant trees, 18 or so of these on both days. People came from as far as Dunfermline, Kirkaldy, Tayport and St Andrews, but most from Crail. My last bit of planting this afternoon was a small grove of rowans alongside the car park. They should be nice and ready for when I am in my 80s so that I can watch the ring ouzels and waxwings meters away from my car, some autumn in the 2050s. Wildlife today at Kilminning – still no chiffchaffs, but a woodcock that was flushed by a planter that made a circuit for everybody to see, and an otter swimming along the coast mid-afternoon, seen by the crack team of hedge planters.

Before – very low diversity rank grassland
After – a mixed native, broadleaf woodland in the making – rowan, field maple, blackthorn, hazel, oak, alder, hawthorn

Posted March 20, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 19th   Leave a comment

I was out all day at Kilminning planting trees: another day of planting tomorrow, but in the meantime – 750 trees and about 300 hedging plants planted by 82 people. There was an east wind on so Kilminning wasn’t a bad pace to be, but it was just lots of trees. Nice to look up and watch the gannets sailing close by though. On the way out I had my first proper corn bunting singing of the season. A bird on the forage rape field next to Pinkerton, just as you come out of Crail. This territory was occupied all last year with a bird singing there from March to September, with little phrases all through this winter. I wish I had this bird colour-ringed: I bet it is the same individual that is now singing again.

My first proper singing corn bunting of the year

Posted March 19, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 17th   2 comments

There were a few migrants on the move this morning. A siskin at Kirklands and another over Upper Kilminning. The first was singing which is very unusual for Crail. They sing a bit like a goldfinch but with frequent “see-uuu” calls, the same phrase that makes their distinctive flight call. There were some meadow pipits passing – not quite the very big flocks we get late March – but the start of them. And as I came back into Crail, a flock of 6 whooper swans came over heading North. I could see them craning their necks around as they passed over, looking at the ground, perhaps thinking about somewhere to land to take a break after crossing the Forth. It is a good time of year to find a snoozing migrating flock in one of the fields around Crail.

Male siskin (John Anderson)

Posted March 17, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 16th   Leave a comment

Another early summer migrant – a lesser black-backed gull – was back in St Andrews today. Last year my first was on the 14th March and the year before the 22nd. They are like chiffchaffs, sometimes they winter, so it is hard to exactly tell when the first migrant appears, but I suspect this was a migrant, back from North Africa (or less adventurously from Southern England). It will be joining the increasingly noisy gull dawn chorus and will nest with the herring gulls (about 1 in 20) in the town.

Lesser black-backed gull (John Anderson). Just like a herring gull but a dark back and yellow, not pink, legs

Posted March 16, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 14th   Leave a comment

Signs of an early spring – I was teaching in St Andrews this afternoon when a I heard a chiffchaff singing. An advantage of the constant open windows at the moment. I was teaching a class how to analyse data on migrant birds wintering in the Sahel and how they might respond to climate change. And there was one of them, freshly back from Africa. Perhaps not quite as far as the Sahel but not impossible for a chiffchaff. And very early in response to the very mild weather. The 16th March 2017 is my earliest migrant and last year it was the 24th in Crail.

Early spring chiffchaff (John Anderson)

Posted March 14, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 12th   Leave a comment

Two visits to Fife Ness and Kilminning today. This morning it was still murky, with the strong southerly wind of the last two days bringing in cloud and sea spray. By the afternoon it had gone more westerly and the sun had come back. There is now a steady stream of gannets and razorbills coming past, kittiwakes back and forth: the seabird spring definitely on the way. A flock of 21 swans appeared from the south, necks foreshortened and the tailwind giving them rapid wingbeats: I got excited that they were Bewick’s Swans, very rare on the Crail patch. But as they draw level with Fife Ness the perspective was restored, their necks extended to their true proportions. The more usual whooper swans. Still a fantastic sight, bright white in the early evening above the waves, on their way North back to Iceland.

Distant whooper swans heading north past Fife Ness (March 10th 2017 – John wasn’t out at Fife Ness today, but this picture pretty much nails today’s sighting) – (John Anderson)

Posted March 12, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 6th   Leave a comment

I walked from Kingsmuir to Bonerbo, Balmonth pond, Carnbee and back via Carnbee Reservoir this morning. A good route on a very sunny day, with the Forth glistening below, and today with the added bonus of missing the ever present wind up there. The only sizeable bit of oak wood in the area is at Kingsmuir. It was full of treecreeper song this morning, and big mixed flocks of tits. Balmonth Pond had a few pairs of tufted ducks and mallards on it, and a pair each of little grebes, mute swans and graylag geese. One of the greylags had a pinkish bill, a paler looking head and white fringed back feathers like a Siberian bird, the other was a typical European, with an orange bill and mostly dark back feathers. I initially thought they might be a feral pair, but probably not if one a Russian type. I haven’t seen any greylags at Balmonth before so these were probably wintering birds, temporarily separated from a much larger migrating flock. Carnbee Reservoir had a lot of wigeon, tufted duck and goldeneye on it. There were two female pintail out of the ordinary among them: pintail are always a good bird to get on the Crail patch. A pair of raven flew high overhead, coming up from Kellie Law to harass a passing sparrowhawk, before drifting away in the direction of the Secret Bunker Woods. It is great to have ravens so regular in the area now.

Greylag geese at Balmonth. The one on the left looks like a typical European, and the one on the right like a Siberian

Late afternoon I went down to Kilrenny Mill to see a snow bunting that has been on the beach there for the last couple of days. Snow buntings turn up two or three times a year around Crail, and in some bunting winters – like last year – there are a few that spend the winter in the stubbles. But in some years they can be absent. So I took the opportunity to see this bird. It’s a fundamental rule of year listing that if you don’t bother to see a species when you can, even if it is not particularly rare, that will be the only one that turns up that year. The coastal path between Caiplie and Kilrenny was very busy – big groups of walkers along the shore, and the shore compressed into just a high tide strip. It didn’t seem likely that the snow bunting had stayed around. But snow buntings, like many Arctic birds, are tame and I found it, practically at my feet, on the shell beach towards Caiplie. It was well worth the trip. It was a male, in winter plumage, with its black and white plumage partly concealed with orangey-browns. I realized it was absolutely perfectly camouflaged for the shell and pebble beach it was feeding on. It disappeared completely when it stopped moving. On the way back to Crail, I stopped at the strip of conifers that leads to Silverdykes Caravan Park from Kirenny, hoping to add another, never totally assured year list species, a crossbill. Two pairs at least have been around for a week or two as they were last year. I wandered up and down the paths through the small confers but didn’t get lucky this time. There were a lot of corn buntings though – maybe 40 – in the adjacent clover and pasture fields. And at least two sparrowhawks doing the same thing as me, moving through the conifers looking for something, although I suspect the sparrowhawks were less fussy than me and would have settled for any finch or bunting.

A perfectly camouflaged snow bunting on the beach at Caiplie this afternoon

Posted March 6, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 5th   Leave a comment

It was a lovely spring day.  The temperature was an average 9 degrees but with little wind and strong sun, it was warm in sheltered places. My frogs – now up to at least 40 of them – were croaking and thrashing about all day. Mating pairs and six clumps of frog spawn. The first was laid two days ago, possibly earlier. It is laid under the water and only rises to the surface after a couple of days. There was a lot of spring bird song too. Greenfinches in particular; I heard their wheezing trills all over Crail and Kilminning.

Frog spawn – earlier than last year. The central patch is the oldest, fully expanded and on the surface. You can see some mating pairs of frogs under the water

Along the shore this afternoon it was a combined seaweed fly and high tide sandhopper emergence. At Balcomie Beach, the sanderlings and redshanks were running along the top of the beach picking up the displaced sandhoppers. At Sauchope, I watched a blackbird digging into the sand too – just the same way they dig into piles of leaves looking for slugs in the autumn. There was even a dunnock and a robin picking about the sand at the edge of the blackbird’s excavations, taking advantage of its hard work. Above them, the black headed gulls were flycatching. At Roome Bay there were over 35 turnstone, with about 10 purple sandpipers and starlings mixed in. They were on the big bank of strandline wrack, picking up slow moving flies, exposed maggots and the washed out sandhoppers. Herring gulls swam the surf edge doing the same. The pyramid of beach life at Crail seems mostly based upon seaweed flies and sandhoppers, and this, in turn, is based on the harvest of seaweed that each storm deposits. The silver lining of the winter’s storms.

Beach clean up – a blackbird digging for sandhoppers with a dunnock getting the ones that got away (it has a small sandhopper in its bill)
The mixed flock of purple sandpipers (centre) and turnstones in a mini, maggot feeding frenzy. You can see lots of seaweed flies around them

Posted March 5, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 2nd   Leave a comment

It might feel cold but the frogs in my pond are still making the best of it. Yesterday in the sunshine there were about 30-40 males croaking and scrapping, waiting for the arrival of the females. Whenever a frog hops into the pond there is a sudden rush from the waiting males as they pile on to the newcomer. Then an embarrassed shuffle back into the corners of the pond when they all realise that it is just another hopeful male. Some of the younger (smaller ones) don’t get the message straight away and the poor male at the bottom of the heap has to scrape away with its back legs to dislodge them as they hang onto its back. The females should be here any day now although there always seems to be more males than females.

A new frog on the way to the pond
And a welcome on arrival, but misplaced because it is another male

Posted March 2, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

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